Friday, March 10, 2006

County reviews major management overhaul proposals

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Commission continued Thursday to explore new management options to improve the effectiveness of county government, which promises to be a lengthy, detail-oriented process that will require future voter approval.

Central to the improvements is the eventual creation of a centralized, administrative system of government.

Stan McNutt, interim Blaine County administrator, presented a draft ordinance to commissioners Thursday that outlines the steps the county should take to establish such a system.

Ideally, the new system would relieve the commissioners' overbearing workload, enhance county management, improve responsiveness with the public, and save the county money.

The draft ordinance, reviewed during a regular County Commission public meeting in the Old County Courthouse in Hailey, could dramatically alter the face of Blaine County government in the future.

But the move could still be years from fruition.

McNutt, who was hired by the county in January to evaluate whether a county administrator is needed, first unveiled his findings March 2 during a county leadership workshop and government coordination seminar. During that presentation, McNutt concluded that the county does need to adopt such a system, but that now is not the time.

McNutt claims county commissioners are not familiar enough with such a proposal to immediately move forward. Additional concerns stem from the county's 2005-2006 budget and the current political environment.

A county administrator was not budgeted for this fiscal year, and the coming election in November 2006—when two seats on the three-member commission will be open—make this an inappropriate time to immediately move forward on establishing a county administrator system of government, McNutt said.

While the initial cost of establishing a county administrator system of government has not been fully explored, McNutt believes it would be in the range of $100,000 to $170,000.

With the commissioners acknowledging the need for such a system in the future, McNutt outlined numerous options they can follow.

The ordinance drafted by McNutt, who has more than 30 years of experience in governmental management work, attempts to summarize the entire process.

"The commission desires to put a positive plan in motion with the ultimate goal of moving to the statutory form of county government known as commission/manager," the draft ordinance states.

The commission/manager form of government would be a work in progress, McNutt said.

First, the commissioners must "adopt by ordinance and/or resolution a series of progressive actions such as budget preparation and adoption of the necessary administrative infrastructure to establish the position of chief administrative officer," according to the draft ordinance.

Before progressing further, the proposal would need to be approved by the voters.

There was some speculation that the proposal would be placed on the ballot in the November 2006 election, but Commissioner Dennis Wright maintains that would be premature. McNutt agreed.

"This is a broad timeline," McNutt said. "It could be a year away, it could be three."

If eventually approved by voters, the structure of Blaine County government could undergo significant change.

First, the structure of the commission itself could change from the current three-seat format to as many as seven. Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael expressed interest in going to a five-member commission, which could force the county to create two additional districts. Currently, the county has three districts—north-county (Michael), mid-county (Tom Bowman), and south-county (Dennis Wright).

"There would be better representation, one could argue," Michael said on Thursday. Michael also noted that such a move could allow the commissioners to go to a part-time status, which would save the county money.

"A goal I would have if I'm re-elected is to have that (system) and take a salary cut," she said.

The county commissioners would also need to decide whether they want a county administrator or a county manager. The primary difference between the two positions is that a county manager acts like a boss, with the ability to hire and fire county employees.

On March 2, Michael expressed more interest in the county manager format, claiming it would provide a more efficient centralized administration.

McNutt's draft ordinance recommends an evolutionary process by which a county administrator would eventually morph into a county manager.

"The commission may, by separate action, appoint a county administrator to administer the daily affairs of county government until such time as a change to the statutory commission/manager form may be accomplished," the ordinance states.

Such a system is allowable by Idaho statute. Several other states do not have such an option.

"I would like to see us adopt this," Michael concluded. "I've been supporting moving toward having a county administrator for five years.

"As a policy, I'd like to move in that direction."

McNutt will continue working on the draft ordinance in the coming weeks.

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